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The PAC Mentality 

Private businessmen from around the state are forming special interest groups at a shocking speed, creating competition for the Old Guard and changing the dynamics of lobbying.

This election-year session of the Legislature could produce surprising results for business and industry. The number of special-interest and "reform" lobbying groups has ballooned recently. Then again, even though there is strength in numbers, there is always the danger that a multi-faceted approach could become fractured. To those who have been around the game long enough, it's a familiar refrain.

What's different this time, some say, is that men of industry are attached to many of the new groups -- men whose names are branded, men worth millions of dollars. Many are aggressively raising money through their political action committees, or PACs. More importantly, they're vowing to spend it on public campaigns and use it to pressure incumbents as well as challengers this election season. Not surprisingly, most of the issues on the table are directly linked to the 2005 hurricane season -- insurance, tax reform, roads, ethics, education and fiscal accountability take center stage. It's a long list.

The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, still the largest trade group of its kind lobbying state government, has long been a Capitol heavy. But now hordes of businessmen from around the state, many who are LABI members, are banding together to push their own agendas. LABI and other groups interviewed aren't sweating it, though, as they've weathered tougher storms. Longevity does that. Bravado aside, competition is competition, no matter how you slice it.

Highway contractors and builders have created the Louisiana Good Roads and Transportation Association. The group has put $500,000 into a campaign to add $515 million in highway spending to the state budget each year. This summer, a group called Blueprint Louisiana, a self-financed nonprofit, will release its plan, which will cover a wide array of issues. Its membership includes Sean Reilly, president of the outdoor division of Lamar Advertising Company. Reilly also is member of the Louisiana Recovery Authority and a former lawmaker.

New Orleans developer and Katrina recovery activist Joseph Canizaro is heading the Louisiana Committee for a Republican Majority, a PAC that wants more GOP seats in the Legislature. The group will spend upwards of $2 million in the coming months, making the Democrats sweat. Finally, Baton Rouge contractor Lane Grigsby is launching LA Next, a statewide extension of the political network he established in the Capitol City. So far, Grigsby has told the media only that his group will seek to separate spin from truth. Good luck with that.

Many arrows will be aimed at lawmakers during the 60-day fiscal session that convenes April 30, and those who don't get into line may find themselves the targets of one or more PACs when elections start to heat up this summer. It's a strategy that Dan Juneau, president of LABI, knows all too well. While his group is the gold standard, it will have competition this year. It doesn't threaten Juneau, who says his group won't have problems with membership or money any time soon.

Juneau says LABI has created a unique niche for itself, taking on elections, issue research and direct lobbying. Meanwhile, all the newbies are just getting their feet wet. "While other business groups have surfaced from time to time, they have generally been geared toward specific issues or specific elections," he says. "Most have done their thing and exited the stage. LABI is the mainstay for the business community."

R. Charles Hodson Jr., state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, a nonprofit advocacy group with 6,000 members statewide, says the current election and session cycles will be a "watershed moment" in Louisiana politics. Activism is reaching a fever pitch, he contends, and any extra help pushing important issues will be welcome. But NFIB will hold its ground. "It doesn't hurt to have competition," Hodson says. "It will only make you better. You could even argue this will be good for our members."

Even chambers of commerce are finding ways to unite. The Baton Rouge Area Chamber has been pushing an aggressive ethics package for months, gathering support from other chambers and nonprofits around the state. The package, among other things, would expand financial disclosure requirements for lawmakers, increase whistleblower protection and make ethics filings more user friendly. Not to be left out, the Baton Rouge Chamber has created its own PAC to promote these issues.

Chambers from around the state are being asked to join the Baton Rouge effort for a collective push, in many instances for the first time. It's an impressive showing, says Candy Theriot, CEO of the Houma-Terrebonne Chamber of Commerce, one of the many groups that has been approached by the Baton Rouge Chamber. While pleased with the outpouring of support for business by all these groups, she says she hopes they don't all try to talk at the same time.

"There are more business groups, so you'd think there would be a stronger business voice," she says. "Let's just hope they all speak with one voice and are not contradicting each other."

Jeremy Alford can be reached at jeremy@jeremyalford.com.

click to enlarge The Louisiana Legislature will be PAC'd by a new crop of - special-interest and reform groups, many backed by - business leaders. - KARRON CLARK
  • Karron Clark
  • The Louisiana Legislature will be PAC'd by a new crop of special-interest and reform groups, many backed by business leaders.
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